Along with such classic novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Separate Peace, The Chosen has always been one of those books that many young Americans are assigned to read in high school. In fact, it was in high school that I too first learned of Chaim Potok’s classic American novel. But I on the other was never asked to read the book as part of my assigned coursework. I did however learn of book’s existence through my sister, who being only a few years younger than me, attended high school at the same time I did. According to my sis, whenever her teacher would assign her class a new book to read, (and with it the inevitable essay project associated with the assigned reading), several of her classmates would lifelessly moan in response, “oh yeah, just like we did with The Chosen.” For years after high school I always wondered about this book and why some of my sister’s classmates loathed it. But with The Chosen being part of the high school literature cannon, I always suspected that Potok’s novel had some intrinsic worth, or else it would never have been assigned reading in the first place. So in the end I figured some day I’d read it.
Not long ago while wandering the shelves of my public library what did I find but a paperback copy of The Chosen. Thinking that it was high time I finally read Potok’s book quickly I grabbed it. My goodness I’m glad I decided to do so. The Chosen is a superb novel.
By focusing on the lives of two young Jewish men and their respective fathers, the novel beautifully explores such universal themes as the importance of true friendship, devotion to family, the tension between religious traditionalism and modern secularism and the importance of respecting ones political and cultural adversaries. Moreover, as the novel’s characters interact with each other and the world around them, deep questions that address the soul of contemporary American Judaism are also explored, questions such as modern scholarship’s right to interpret holy texts, the degree to which one should assimilate within the larger Gentile culture as opposed to living in distinct and separate communities, how a just and loving God could have allowed the Holocaust to occur, as well as the meaning of Israel as a modern and secular state.
On top of all of this, it’s a wonderful novel. The characters, although exclusively male and few in number, are incredibly rich and complex. There’s more than a few plot twists along the way which in the end help generate some amazing irony. The writing is direct while at the same time descriptive, making the novel an accessible vehicle for any readers wanting to explore these powerful and essential questions associated with modern life. It’s also inspired me to read additional books by Potok, including novels such as My Name is Asher Lev, The Gift of Asher Lev and The Promise. I also want to read his Wanderings: History of the Jews.
Thanks to Potok’s novel, I learned one additional thing. On top of everything else, I learned not to judge a novel based on the grumblings of a few disinterested school kids. There’s a reason this book appears on so many high school reading lists –by all accounts it’s a great novel. And I highly recommend it.